gall and gumption

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Captain

From the Notebooks:

Pan’s Labyrinth (in Spanish, El Laberinto del Fauno) is a fairy tale for adults, and its really scary horrors take place not in the Labyrinth where the fairies and monsters live but outside it, in the real world. The story is set in Spain, just after the Civil War, where the victorious Fascists are conducting “mopping-up” operations. A Captain presides over one of these operations in a remote mountain forest; he and the unit he commands are staying in an old mill house that has an old labyrinth in its grounds. He sends for his new, pregnant wife (widow of a tailor) and her daughter, Ofelia, a girl of about 10 who likes to read fairy tales. The mother, rescued from poverty and loneliness by her marriage to the Captain, wants the daughter to love him and call him father but Ofelia dislikes him. You know that in the adult world people try to reason away these dislikes: the child isn’t trying hard enough to like him; give it time; you haven’t noticed how good he has been to us. The mother in her simplicity actually believes all this, and besides, her pregnancy, very advanced, makes her sick all the time. She’s helpless, submissive, and trusting, grateful for the security that the Captain has provided for her.

He’s handsome, a fearfully competent disciplinarian and enforcer of order, constantly and minutely vigilant for threats and prompt to act on them. He’s a killing machine whose pride is in his complete self-dedication to his duty. He’s also (and this amounts to the same thing) mad.

On the level of his character you see that he is weak, mean, controlling and irresponsible; that he carries major Daddy issues (he has to be the soldier that his father was) and that for all his cunning he’s rather stupid. And he is prodigiously vain of the horrible character that he has created for himself. That is what he brings to the mix, but he’s not only a self-created monster. His peculiar brand of monsterishness is useful; it fills a need, and where there is a need such men will appear for duty. The individual who steps up so willingly and unquestioningly to do the work of extermination is mad, but it is a larger madness that summons him.

A group of bourgeoisie from the nearest town comes out to the mill for a dinner party, an incongruously formal affair, very stiff and constrained. They are all agreed as to the necessity of his “work,” and admire his zeal and dedication in carrying it out. They don’t know what he actually does – they could know but they don’t want to know – but whatever it is, it is necessary for their security. And this is of course flattering to them. That he takes pleasure in killing and torture (a moral pleasure) is beyond the scope of what they have to know. This is how they become complicit: they feed his insane convictions of his own morality. The even tolerate his small, mean corruption as long as they are the beneficiaries of it, and as long as the poor, whom they despise, pay the cost of it.

As the Captain works out his destiny (“character is destiny”) Ofelia, the little girl, works on her own story. She’s a lost princess who has to complete three increasingly difficult tasks before she can return home. The tasks are assigned by the Faun of the Labyrinth, and as frightening as they are, they are not as terrible as the goings-on in the real world ruled by the Captain and all he stands for. One of the beauties of the film is that it plays so delicately with ambiguity. Are the creatures of the Labyrinth real or just figments of Ofelia’s imagination? You can have it either way or both; what matters is what Ofelia believes, and she believes in goodness. That is, she believes that she must be good, and the fairy tales have taught her that goodness will be tested, must be tested. She passes the tests, of course: the heroes and heroines of fairy tales always do. But the third test, the hardest one, she passes without knowing she has passed it; without knowing that her whole time at the mill, the time in the real world, was the test.

We know how the real-world story ends: the Fascists ruled Spain for 40 years. Many, many innocents suffered and died, security was maintained, the mad and the guilty had their way for a good long run. But sanity lived among the fairy tales. What is that sanity but the belief that goodness is beautiful and necessary?

Ofelia’s innocence is a sort of mystery; innocence is a mystery, in the sense that it is hard to define or explain in terms cause or origin. It is if anything a negative good: in Ofelia it is the persistence of the belief that it is possible and necessary to be good, and that being good is worth more than anything you can trade it away for. It is at last the tenacity with which she possesses her own soul, which is bigger than herself in ways she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know she possesses innocence, she doesn’t know how her innocence possesses her.
In the fairy-tale world of the Labyrinth, she makes the choice not to be like the Captain and not to be like those who rely on his services. With this choice the storyline of the Labyrinth completes itself; the small piece of magic is accomplished. But here’s the thing that remains, here is where the two stories converge: goodness is like magic. It has to be imagined into being, it is against the grain.

Ofelia passes her last test by doing what is right in this world. With everything in both worlds at stake she refuses to agree to the infliction of even a tiny bit of suffering. When you take your security at the expense of suffering and death, you summon the Captain.
The Captain is mad but his is the madness of righteous conviction: if he had ever had a chance to be other than he is, he missed it long before we meet him at the mill in the forest. He has lost the capacity to question himself, and the world has closed around him, divided simply into enemies and potential enemies. Those who do not submit to his control are enemies; the others are all potential enemies. It becomes increasingly difficult for him to distinguish between his personal will and his duty as he conceives it. This is why 1) he succumbs so easily to corruption; the rationale for it is actually fed by his fanaticism; and 2) he creates around him an ongoing state of emergency in which he regards the least expression of dissent as an existential threat to his mission; his mission has given value to his personal feelings. He’s not a vain man; he’s a model soldier. He’s not an unloved son; he’s carrying on a family tradition of manly courage. He’s not a torturer; he’s a skilled interrogator who knows he can do whatever is necessary. He’s not a murderer; he is efficient and prompt in resolving crises. There can be no half-measures with such people. To grant them the right to one drop of blood, one minute of distress, is to give them everything. Eventually--and eventually is sooner, not later – they will demand everything. Because they do not know what innocence is: they do not believe in it. There is no compromising with such people because you cannot compromise with them without the sacrifice of innocence. You cannot divide the truth between the speaker of truth and the liar, between the murderer and his victim. When you do that, the liar gets half of what he wants (and will soon present you with a bill for the remainder) and the truth teller gets worse than nothing. There’s no such thing as a half liar or half a truth teller. If you make that sort of compromise you haven’t reduced the total sum of guilt; you have only displaced its cost onto the innocent. And when you force the innocent to bear this cost you become an accomplice in a crime for the sake of your self-deceit and whatever comfort or advantage it gives you. For people like the Captain to acknowledge innocence is to take the risk of making a mistake, of accidentally releasing an enemy.

The Captain is the absolute despot of the group of soldiers and workers of his domain. But despotism also rules him; we know that there are powers above that expect him to be thorough, to not let anything slip through; no food, no medicine, no suspect person can be allowed to escape. Competence becomes, by a cruel logic, attention to the most picayune details, and each potential conflict raises a threat that must be met by the assertion of force.

When this logic of despotism establishes itself it spreads downward; the whole system is maintained by lesser functionaries who, to prove their competence, must be sharp, resolute and prompt in dispatching threats to order, in neutralizing anything that may undermine their place. While they thus wage a quiet war against external enemies (the journalist who demands information, the writer of protest songs, the dissenting activist, the widow of the partisan denied a pension, the victim of land theft) they are waging another secret war against themselves, against the enemy within. People who are willing to make a sacrifice of their inner selves will naturally turn to making a sacrifice of others. They sacrifice themselves this way for any number of possible reasons. What they gain by it is moral certainty, a self that they can like better than the one they rejected; camaraderie, status, a sense of purpose, and an ongoing state of passionate arousal that satisfies itself in the detection and destruction of enemies. And all who are unwilling to make this sacrifice are enemies. Hence arises the necessity to pursue thought crimes and imaginary and hypothetical enemies: no one dares to say, “We have done enough,” no one wants to be the first to say that severity can be slackened. Because despotism has become a way of life, and people’s minds mold to it, taking the shape of it even while everyone is sure that they are decent, just and rational. They do it – and this is the horrible truth – for small things: for status, power, a little money, spite, vindictiveness. But the belief that they are serving a great cause transforms the appearance of these human motivations. The people who give up their selves to despotism don’t want these selves back on any terms; it’s a return to insignificance, defensiveness, doubt, and – when all the bodies are finally counted – guilt. They are therefore deeply invested in the fantasy selves that they have constructed; they are more invested in those selves than they are in the ideology that justifies despotism. About the ideology they are quite content to be as muddleheaded as they are about everything else. They are simple folk, with simple moral values! The like kittens and babies! You can’t expect them to figure out all that intellectual stuff. They are just ordinary people defending a way of life, and you don’t need to be an intellectual to do that, for crying out loud.

To the Captain and to the numberless others who rule like him every personal affront or grievance undergoes a transmutation, it’s framed as something that happens not to them personally, as individuals, but to the cause. This is of course convenient if you have any power at all – the power to rat someone out to the police, the power to go rummaging in their secrets and a public platform for exposing them, the power to withhold a job or a ration card or a promotion or a signature. The exercise of malice and envy and contempt becomes a necessity of virtue. This transformation of the personal into the political is convenient in another way: it keeps up the supply of enemies (and the system depends on the steady supply of enemies) by creating new pretexts for identifying them, and it offers opportunities for the display of righteous zeal.

To destroy your own guilt is nearly impossible; it requires a return of the rejected self that people demonstrate again and again that they cannot do. It is easier to destroy innocence, to destroy the idea of innocence first, which enables the destruction of actual innocents. For this result, contempt is necessary, and there is always a lot of that floating around in search of a worthy object. Once you have overcome your guilt at the suffering of others from poverty, deprivation, and injustice, contempt for them comes naturally: they have imposed on your good nature, and they will do it again at the least opportunity. So it becomes necessary to distinguish between the deserving poor and the undeserving, and for the latter more deprivation, more hardship, is the best remedy. When it comes to that, even the deserving poor had best be kept strictly in line and taught not to expect too much. This is why, in Jane Eyre, Mr. Brockehurst and his well-fed, well-dressed daughters could visit Lowood School and looking upon its ranks of half-starved, beaten-down, dispirited orphans and daughters of impoverished clergymen, see nothing but their own goodness.

They are also, of course, destroying witnesses and evidence against the day when it all collapses. On that day, forced at the point of a gun to admit that crimes were committed, the guilty retreat into a sort of twilight of willful amnesia about their part in the crime: they didn’t know what was going on, that they had no choice, and they always acted with the best of intentions and never had any other kind. Their exact relation to the machinery of crime will be hard to define, although it will always somehow be clear to them that they were victims, too, and that they are now doubly victims because they find that the world does not think as well of them as they wish to think of themselves.

The first of the Captain’s crimes that we witness is his killing of two peasants, a father and son, captured in the woods. They have guns, which of course immediately renders them suspect. They explain that they have been out hunting rabbits, but he doesn’t believe them. When they insist, he kills the son, brutally, for not shutting up. Having now created an enemy and a witness in the father, he must kill him too – which he promptly does. The father has only just dropped to the ground when one of the soldiers pulls a dead rabbit out of the bag the men were carrying. “Search them better next time,” the Captain says and walks away.

The Captain, authority, cannot be seen to have made mistakes. The peasants incriminate themselves by asserting a fact contrary to what he believes: he kills them because they are a threat to order and control – to his order and his control, which in his madness he has conflated with order in the world. For the same reason, he blames the soldiers for the killing. Thus the first time we see the Captain at his “work” we see that he is a failure: he’s stupid and incompetent. We must disabuse ourselves of the idea that his incompetence is unique to himself. Like his madness it is systemic; the very conception of the job he has been assigned is incompetent; failure is built into it. The Captain’s especial qualification for his job – what makes him such a model soldier to the bourgeois of the town, is that he is a failure as a human being. His moral imagination is broken, and the proof of it is that he willingly takes the job and goes about it with such righteous zeal. And those who hire the Captain have failed in their moral and political imagination. To make the kind of quid pro quo calculation of benefit to themselves versus cost to other people in suffering injustice, cruelty, and death – to take what you want at the cost of even a few small drops of the blood of one who can neither consent nor refuse – is to be a monster like the Captain. You cannot touch pitch without being defiled. You cannot sell your soul to the devil for just a little while. There is no trading away a little piece of the sacred.

For the society he serves the Captain is the expression of the will to control other people, and the will to control other people masks incompetence at the most basic personal level. It’s like being a poet I met once who, finding no audience for his poetry, had determined that this was the fault of the way society was organized. He had a job at the Ministry of Culture in a small Caribbean country, and the first thing he wanted to do was remove a fountain from one of the squares in the capital. The fountain, a piece of harmless Victorian kitsch, was for him a symbol of the colonial oppression that had corrupted the culture. But most people did not share his feeling about the statue: for them it was not associated with ideas about history – except for their personal history: memories of childhood, of events, the continuity of their individual lives through time, lives lived uniquely in that place. About all this – the very subject matter of poetry and literature – the poet was breezily dismissive. The people who cherished this irrational affection for the fountain would need to be brought round to the right sort of historical consciousness, and those who resisted it would be dealt with. He wasn’t kidding; he thought of himself as an enlightened, creative person denied fulfillment by an unjust society. He showed me a slim volume of his poems. They were bad – predictably, pitifully, irredeemably bad – and he would not have believed anyone who ventured to tell him so.

So he wanted power instead, and his conception of power was as poor as his poetry: of course it was – these things are all of a piece. He was a mediocrity turned part-time fanatic, and it was of some comfort to think of the peculiar resistance to fanaticism that has evolved in Caribbean culture; its irreverence, its hardheaded commonsensical materialism, would pretty much keep him from ever being taken seriously. He was not talented enough to be more than a placeholder. There were better propagandists and they were not encumbered with poetry.

That separation of good and evil must take place within us: it’s the separation of the good and evil that are within us. The will to control others is a double failure: the failure to understand oneself and, inevitably, eventually, the failure to control others.
Bad as the Captain is when we first understand what he is, over the course of the story he degenerates. It’s not the guerillas in the woods that break him down – his martial bravado endures all the way to the end when he is ready to meet the hero’s death for which, in a sense, he has been rehearsing in front of a mirror. Of its own power, his will to control keeps spiraling inward, until having created mayhem and chaos in his own camp, he is reduced to hunting down and killing Ofelia. There is no need to kill her: she has already given him back what he wants, but he does it anyway. This killing is, at last, the purest expression of his power and the real purpose of that power. A murderer: this is what he is when the mask of duty is stripped away. If he ever seemed to be more than that it is because society, in employing him to do its dirty work, gave him a stage on which to enact his mad bloody fantasies on the bodies of real people. His fantasies are the fantasies of his employers: his lost self and the corpses he piles up for his masters are sacrificial offerings, the highest price that can be paid for the ennobling of raw human meanness.


At 10:46 PM, Blogger Batocchio said...

You have an excellent feel for Captain Vidal. That's quite the psychological profile. Incompetence and savagery are features of fascism, not bugs. I counted El Laberinto del fauno as one of the best films of 2006, and you're reminding me I'm overdue for seeing it again.

At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy shit, Kia, this is just a brilliant essay. I'm kind of agog. I especially like the point that Batocchio draws out, explicit in your analysis of the killing of the peasant poachers, incompetence and a bullheaded determination never to learn from experience are features, not bugs. This reminds me of the way the right wing in the US keeps insiting that Bush (and Palin's) best quality was his willingness to ignore evidence, to keep acting on principle even if principle didn't track with reality, to act with speed and decisiveness regardless of the direction of movement. This was, in fact, the chief weapon against Kerry (and later against Obama's perceived public persona) which is that those fuckers *think too much* and are too nuanced. Because we must at all times be moving forward, or backward, but at any event we as a people must move rather than contemplate, act rather than think.


At 1:24 PM, Anonymous Captain Goto said...

Basically, what Aimai and Batocchio said. Brilliant. Thank you!

At 11:00 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Thanks for stopping by! And thanks Leeds Man for sending so many people over here. It's usually so quiet.

Batocchio I agree that these are features not bugs of fascism but I also think that it predates fascism, that fascism is only one, maybe the fullest and most deliberate expression of these impulses. That's probably just semantic though.

Benjamin Constant called it "The Spirit of Despotism," and he ID'd it as a feature of Napoleon's political philosophy. The interesting thing about the film is that the details political philosophy doesn't matter. At last it comes down to a view of the world, from which a political philosophy is derived, but the worldview was there first and the political philosophy is an expression of it. The conflict in the film is a conflict of fairy tales, in a way.

At 11:38 PM, Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

You've brought the film back to me with greater impact - or at least greater understanding of its impact - than my first and only viewing when it came out.

To the portrayal of the fascist man, and the fascist organization, I agree with you that it's older than what we call 20th c. fascism. I also think it's broader, more widely distributed. Thoughtful European portrayals of fascist evil often include child murder - one thinks of the horrific character Donald Sutherland plays in 1900, and his sickening deed.

What I'm getting from how you and Constant tease out the complex economy of the selves given to despotism is that the despotic rescues them, redeems them, from the vile emptiness of lives without hope, vision, or imagination. It supplements their lack, structures their absence of compass, purpose, meaning:

They are therefore deeply invested in the fantasy selves that they have constructed; they are more invested in those selves than they are in the ideology that justifies despotism.

It is, in short, a wonderfully successful scheme that gives nihilists the joy of living someone else's novel, or fairy tale.

This pattern, beautifully drawn out in your post, is not just about Franco, Hitler, et al, and their organizations and drones. This pattern is omnipresent in the structure and DNA of large powerhouses on a mission - e.g., USian and supranational corporations. That we dignify these entities with honor and the status of personhood is a major fairy tale of the last 100 years. Yes they give us meaning, yes they chow down on our souls, and yes, they are murdering the child within our children. Corporations are the grain against which we, brave resistance fighters all, have not yet begun to contend with.

At 6:37 AM, Blogger jonhusband said...

As with Tom's comment, this brilliant essay brought the film back vividly and has stimulated another viewing.

I remember thinking much the same as what you've articulated when viewing it the first time, but the context and articulation of archetypal patterns that you have set out will add much to the next viewing.

Thank you.

Corporations are the grain against which we, brave resistance fighters all, have not yet begun to contend with.


At 9:48 AM, Blogger Phil Cubeta said...

My thoughts go to what is called "Strategic Philanthropy," employed by corporations, foundations and the very wealthy to wreck change in the world and to measure results. Behind that apparatus one looks for moral imagination, wisdom, a cultured sense of what the world needs, yet often in that space where vision would go is vacuity. The organization for which the Captain works will create Shared Value through Strategic Philanthropy, helping cure a disease is some land far distant from Spain. All honor to leader!

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